The nutrition crisis of covid-19 will be even worse than the disease

A policeman looks at people holding a sign reading “If the virus does not kill us, hunger will”, in the La Pintana commune of Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman looks at people holding a sign reading “If the virus does not kill us, hunger will”, in the La Pintana commune of Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s some unexpected good news from the covid-19 front: In many of the world’s most miserable places, where health agencies have been bracing for a devastating onslaught, the coronavirus so far has delivered only a glancing blow.

Consider a half-dozen of the most critical zones of humanitarian crisis: Syria’s Idlib province, the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, war-ravished Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and the Gaza Strip. As of late last week, by the counting of the United Nations, they had recorded a total of just over 1,800 coronavirus infections and 79 deaths, among a population of nearly 60 million. By way of contrast, the District of Columbia, with a population of 700,000, has logged some 8,000 cases and 427 deaths.

It’s hard to overstate the health catastrophes that were expected and that, until now, have been avoided. Some experts predicted up to 100,000 deaths in Idlib province, where 3 million Syrians, half of them displaced, are crammed into a territory where hospitals have been systematically destroyed by Russian bombing. But there have been no deaths reported so far. The same is true in Gaza, where nearly 2 million Palestinians are served by 40 intensive care beds; and in the densely packed camps, where some 1 million Rohingya have precariously sheltered since being driven out of neighboring Myanmar.

U.N. officials were alerted a week ago when the first four coronavirus infections were discovered in the Rohingya camps; there was a rush to lock down 5,000 people who might have been exposed. Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, says he is “increasingly alarmed” about Yemen, where only 33 deaths have been reported, but where there is growing evidence of community transmission.

U.N. officials and aid workers nevertheless say a number of factors may have protected the world’s most vulnerable from this pandemic. Lockdowns have further curtailed movement in places, such as Idlib and Gaza, that were already hard to get into. Demographics have helped: From a third to a half of the population in these areas is under age 18, and the number over 65 is small. Higher temperatures may be making a difference, along with greater exposure to sunshine. Because of skimpy testing, many cases may not have been reported.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. Even though they haven’t been directly ravaged by the virus, the world’s poorest people may yet suffer some of the pandemic’s greatest losses — in the form of plummeting incomes and, as a consequence, growing hunger. “There’s a huge covid impact which is economic, and that is drowning out the disease itself”, Lowcock told me during an interview last week.

The math is pretty straightforward. The global economy is now expected to shrink this year by at least 3 percent, delivering a direct hit to the primary goods exports, remittances and tourism on which many poor countries subsist. According to Lowcock, for the first time in 30 years, the percentage of the world’s population in extreme poverty — those living on less than $1.90 a day — will increase.

At the beginning of the year, the United Nations reckoned that 130 million people would be at risk of starvation. “Now we think there will be 265 million”, Lowcock said. “We could have mass hunger and multiple famines”.

The relative good news is that, unlike for covid-19, there is a ready cure for this food crisis. “This is a fixable problem”, Lowcock said. “The problem is not a shortage of food. The issue is money in the hands of people to buy food”.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs this month updated its plan for coping with the pandemic in the world’s poorest countries. It says protecting the most vulnerable 10 percent of the world’s people will cost $90 billion — or about 1 percent of the money wealthy countries have allocated to bolstering their own economies. Two-thirds of the aid money could come from international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The United Nations itself is trying to raise $6.7 billion, which, Lowcock says, “is not enough to look after all of the 260 million” at risk of starvation, but would fund “the plans we can implement now if we can get the money”. Sadly, the response so far has been weak. About $1 billion has been raised; of that, the United States has contributed $164.1 million, making it only the second-largest donor, after Germany.

Last week, the State Department issued a 31-page news release portraying the Trump administration as the world’s largest supplier of covid-19 aid. It says $1 billion has been allocated — yet only $125 million of that has gone to Yemen, Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, the Rohingya and Palestinians. “Now is really a time when the U.S. role is important in saving countless lives”, Lowcock said. In that, as in so much else, American leadership is missing.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears in print on Mondays.

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